Friday, February 19, 2010

DC 75: BEHIND THE FANSITES: Interviewing Bill Walko of The Titans Tower (Part 2)

In paying tribute to DC's 75 year history, IADW is going behind four of the best DC fan-sites on the internet, to find out about the passions, dedication, and people behind them. On Wednesday I posted part one of my interview with Bill Walko the creator of the definitive website for all things Teen Titans; The Titans Tower, today we pick up part two looking at the problems even the simplest continuity shifts can cause...

IADW: The key difference in a team blog is obviously the number of characters involved. From the original five through to the modern day, many Titans remain core parts of DC's biggest franchises. With such an epic cast and exposure, how do you keep track on where the Titans are at at any given moment?

Bill: I’m not gonna lie: It ain’t easy! [laughs]

It was a bit easier when the Titans universe was more self-contained. But ever since Identity Crisis, the DCU has really been one big mega-verse with a lot of characters milling about in each others’ books. It makes it much harder to keep track of. And then you have these weird “grey” areas. How much do I cover the Outsiders characters like Jade, Grace and Thunder? They really aren’t Titans proper. And what about characters that were once Titans like Kyle Rayner, Captain Marvel Jr. and Matrix-Supergirl? What obligation do I have to maintain their histories? And how much do I need to follow Deathstroke and Cheshire as they clash with Batman and the Birds of Prey and other heroes? is pretty much a one-man show and has been since its inception, so it can be a little daunting at times. Geoff Johns joked that he was "putting me to work" when he added all those "One Year Later" Titans. And he wasn't kidding. [laughs] Still, I try to manage it all. I try to at least cover the broad strokes. I also frequent a few message boards, so usually someone will mention any happenings, like when The Hangmen (remember them from Jay Faerber’s run on Titans?) were slaughtered in an issue of Manhunter. Thankfully, the Titans have a rabid fanbase, so they keep on top of this stuff, too.

There are two issues I find particularly challenging in character maintenance, especially in the new-era of DC Comics.

One is the constant shifting of continuities. They tend to have odd ripple effects that won’t resolve themselves until a story requires it. Pre-Crisis, Dick Grayson resigned as Robin and passed the costume on to Jason Todd. Post-Crisis, we are told Batman fired Dick Grayson as Robin after he was almost killed by the Joker. That was later retold differently through the years, with a blend of Batman forcing Dick Grayson out, and Dick quitting in a huff. It’s been told differently every few years. So I have to keep reconciling little things like that.

And when John Byrne did his Doom Patrol relaunch, it left the histories of Mento and Beast Boy in question. And it took a few years for it to be addressed in-story. And currently, we haven’t gotten any definitive answer as to Donna Troy’s history (since Wonder Woman was now been re-ret-conned as a JLA founder, and there have been hints that Donna spent time growing up on Paradise Island after all). I have to draw my own conclusions from the scarce hints given through dialogue. And with Batwoman completely revamped, it remains to be seen whether Bette Kane was ever Bat-Girl, or what relationship she shared with Batwoman (if any). That stuff is just maddening. When do you update the pages? And how?

PICTURED: Move aside Brother Blood, when it comes to the Titans ultimate bad-ass Walko stakes his money on Deathstroke

The second issue of difficulty is the way new characters are introduced. In the Silver and Bronze Age, new characters were given full introductions, with names and backstories. Their first appearances would often provide their basic history, personality, as well as some perfect panels that captured a key moment of their genesis. Look at New Teen Titans #2, which provides everything we need to know about Deathstroke. Or New Teen Titans #3, which handily introduces each Fearsome Five member. Even “mystery” characters (like Raven) were played out to reveal everything in time (and “time” would be a maximum of six months).

But storytelling has changed in comics. Now, you often get a half-introduction, or a partial explanation. It makes it hard to write entries for characters like Little Barda, Young Frankenstein, Molecule and Mas Y Menos when their names and histories have never been made clear. Offspring has been given contradictory first names of “Ernie” and “Luke,” which were later clumsily rectified by another writer (it turns out his name is Luke Ernie O'Brian... At least for now). And then there’s characters like Power Boy, whose personality shifted from writer to writer. You have to search for enough information, and vague things up where there is conflicts. It’s like writing origins from a group of writers playing telephone. Not easy stuff.

IADW: The Titans are the title in comics whose success seams more dependant than others on the line-up involved. Do you feel the book should always remain close to one of the iconic gatherings of its past, or can it still work with brand new faces, as long as certain characteristics are maintained?

Bill: That’s a tough question. I think, at its core, the Teen Titans are junior heroes trying to prove their worth. As long as you go back to that core concept, it’s viable.

Fandom might say different. Many fans - and even creators - will insist that the Titans need a Robin figure. I’m not so sure. When you look at the Uncanny X-Men of the 70's and the New Teen Titans of the 80's – both were entirely fresh and new, even with some past members thrown in for good measure. Both those revamps broke a lot of rules in ways that fans and comic editors couldn’t possibly imagine. So I’m hard-pressed to lay out any definite formula for Titans’ success.

Commercially, of course, marque names tend to sell. A Titans group comprised of Flamebird, Bumblebee, Pantha, Red Star, Golden Eagle and Joker’s Daughter may please some long-time fans, but it probably would be a hard-sell as a comic. But by the same token, Superboy now has the same “lynchpin” value as Robin, as far as I can see. And I do think it helps to have at least one tie to the past, even if it’s an iconic nod (someone in the Robin costume, if not “the” Robin). But I don’t think you necessarily “need” a small herd of the same characters over and over. I would almost argue the opposite.

PICTURED: Bill cites Superboy as having the same lynchpin value as Robin, when it comes to the Teen Titans roster.

It’s become the “trap” of the Titans franchise. The beloved Wolfman/Perez Titans are caught in this weird loop-paradox. People want them on the team. And they want them to go back to their original paradigms. And they want everyone to get along. Like family, as they always say. But they didn’t all get along “like family” in a lot of those original stories. Dick and Wally weren’t very close at all. Gar and Vic were in their own sub-set. Wally and Raven were often a little detached from the team.

And by “they”, I’m including some creators as well as fans. This line of thinking tends to stagnate the characters. They keep repeating the same storylines over and over again. People forget that in the original  Wolfman/Perez Titans stories, the characters changed and grew. They weren’t built to tell the same stories again and again. Marv Wolfman included Starfire, Raven and Cyborg to open stories up to include sci-fi, supernatural and technology. So Starfire stories shouldn’t always be about her naïveté in regard to earth culture, they should include new sci-fi type concepts. A Raven story doesn’t pre-suppose that she fight her dark side – it can include any number of supernatural elements. And a Cyborg story is more than a woeful “walking junkpile” coming-to-terms-with-humanity for the 67th time; the potential for Cyborg stories updates as our technology changes every day. I’m not sure why we’ve largely limited those characters in that way.

Almost all of those Wolfman/Pérez Titans characters tend to repeat their "coming of age" stories ad nauseum. Nightwing stories where he struggles out of his mentor's shadow. Donna Troy grappling with identity issues. Beast Boy forcing himself to grow up. Seriously, we need some new beats to play with here.

PICTURED: This 1983 New Teen Titans Poster is Bill's top pic of the super-team, but feels the members of the iconic Wolfman/Pérez line-up shown in it need some new storylines to play with.

But I digress. I think with the right creative team, anything could work, as far as team line-up. I know DC tried an “all-new” Teen Titans with the Dan Jurgens’ team in the mid-90's. And that didn’t turn out very well. But that was more executional flaw than conceptual flaw, to me. Look how many times the X-Men have changed teams and rejiggered line-ups. If you told a fan in 1972 that an X-Men team could exist without Cyclops and Jean Grey, he may well have scoffed at the notion. But look how many new characters they continually add to the mix, even supplanting old favorites at times. It can be done. And creators shouldn’t feel trapped by “rules” we’ve self-imposed on the Titans and the characters. They should question why those “rules” were ever imposed in the first place!

IADW: Following on from the point above about 'Titans Family', for me the crux of the book is in the teams war-cry 'Titans Together'. Where other books claim to be a dysfunctional family, the Titans actually become more than functional. Through this, the book houses some of the most fleshed out characters and friendships in comics. What relationship is your favourite?

Bill: Well, first, I do take a little exception to the assertion that “Titans is Family.” That became a big buzzword when the Titans series was relaunched in 1999, in contrast to Grant Morrison’s epic, god-like Justice League team. But I don’t think the Titans are exactly “a dysfunctional family.” That metaphor is a little flawed. Not to get technical, but the Titans don’t have a mother or father figure within the group. By their very definition, their mother and father figures exist outside the group! You can’t even qualify Dick Grayson and Donna Troy to those roles. Everyone is on equal footing as brothers and sisters. And yes, “Once a Titan, always a Titan.” They forged strong bonds and all. And they look out for each other. But so does the Legion of Super-Heroes, Fantastic Four, X-Men, New Mutants, Avengers, New Warriors and so on and so on. So “Titans as family” is this weird thematic that gets tossed around a lot, but it’s not very “ownable” to them. And for me, it's not even accurate.

It’s not a coincidence that the X-Men and Teen Titans were both fan-favorites in the 80's. The similarities are many: Both teams started as teenage "students". Both teams are underdogs. Both teams had members grow into adulthood before fans' eyes. Both books have their share of breakout fan-favorite characters. Both enjoyed wildly popular runs. Both have strong male and female fans, and have a "soap opera" approach to storytelling. Both feature villains with very personal connections to team members. In many ways, they are "wired the same." But people never site “family” as a defining trait of the X-Men. But then again, the X-Men's juice has always been how they relate to the outside world, not how they internally relate to one another. Victims of prejudice. Outsiders. That kind of stuff.

PICTURED: With revamps that injected popular new members into each team, Bill Walko believes the list of similarities between the X-Men and the Teen Titans are key points to each books success.

Sorry, but that "family" theme is just another thing that has painted the Wolfman/Pérez Titans into a corner. And with the Teen Titans currently made up of the 4th generation of heroes (Tim Drake, Cassie Sandsmark, etc.), it leaves the 3rd generation of heroes (Dick Grayson, Donna Troy, etc.) with no clear role in the DCU. And “family” ain’t it! Almost every super-team evolves into a makeshift family over time, looking out for each other. The Titans need to look for a more ownable niche in the DCU. Look at their role in relation to their external world. What are they to others? Mentors. Idealists. Upstarts. Underdogs. Those themes are more ownable to the Wolfman/Pérez Titans.

Whew. Sorry to go off on a rant, but the recent Titans series relaunch has made it pretty clear DC is struggling with these Wolfman/Pérez Titans. The Titans always work best when they are restless and in flux (either as teens with something to prove, or as adults coming into their own). This "family" thing is so staid and dull for a team of young heroes in their mid-20s. And it does nothing to make them active - or even reactive. The Fantastic Four have a strong family theme, but they're also explorers. And those Wolfman/Pérez Titans need something  like that to differentiate themselves - something that can also drive new stories.

But back to the relationships. There have been so many good ones through the years. In the first series, I thought the romance between Lilith and Gnarrk was rather charming. And it was the only in-team romance during the Cardy-Haney years of Teen Titans. I love the Wonder Girl and Speedy romance, but unfortunately we never “saw it” in the first series. We were only told as readers that they were a couple. Thankfully, that clunky relationship was later given new nuances by Marv Wolfman, Devin Grayson, Amy Wolfram and others. Teen Titans: Year One #5 tells the sweet and tragic tale of their first date. I challenge anyone to tell me that’s not canon! [laughs] I also liked the friendship between Donna and Lilith, who shared similar identity issues (and they both knew judo and wore cute mini-skirts!). I always liked the relationship between Donna Troy and Wonder Woman, who was an older sister and not a parental figure. It gave Donna a completely different dynamic than the boys had with their father figures.

PICTURED: One of the relationships in the team Bill finds interesting is that of "the new fab four"; Tim Drake, Cassie Sandsmark, Conner Kent and Bart Allen.

In the Wolfman/Pérez run, I loved the platonic friendship between Dick Grayson and Donna Troy; It was so refreshing to see that, and not have it devolve into a love triangle at some point. I love the friendship between Cyborg and Beast Boy, because they are so different from each other. It was interesting to see Wally West and Raven through their seriously messed up relationship-that-never-was. Loved the relationship between Terra and Changeling – and it was heartbreaking and shocking to see her revealed as a traitor. Loved the weird friendship between Deathstroke and Gar Logan that came out of that, too. I always liked the Wilson family (Slade, Joey, Adeline, Wintergreen and Rose), with all their dysfunction. Oh, to be a fly on the wall at a Wilson Thanksgiving!

Then there’s some of the lesser-known relationships within the Titans universe. I really loved Kyle Rayner and Donna Troy as a couple. And Post-Zero Hour, there was some interesting hints at things we never saw developed, including a budding Mirage-Arsenal pairing and Impulse’s crush on Rose Wilson. And at that time, I was really invested in the Rose Wilson and Deathstroke interactions; I thought she was a character with a lot of potential. It took a few years for her to realize that potential. But ask my friends... They were sick of hearing me mention Rose Wilson through the nineties. [laughs] In the first Titans series, I liked the Argent-Damage pair within the Titans team, as the junior heroes trying to make good. There was also some nice carry-over over Arsenal as Damage’s mentor, after giving him such a hard time on the Post-Zero Hour New Titans team. I also enjoyed the friendship between like-minds Jesse Quick and Dick Grayson. I hope some of those lesser relationships get revisited at some point.

We’ve also gotten some nice, new relationships with the next generation of Teen Titans. I like the camaraderie and interplay between the “new fab four”: Tim Drake, Cassie Sandsmark, Conner Kent and Bart Allen. I like the way they all relate to each other. Love the “frenemy” stuff between Ravager and Wonder Girl – they should never fully lose that. I also like Ravager’s odd friendship with Kid Devil. And for that matter, Kid Devil’s odd friendship with Zachary Zatara. I like those weird co-dependent friendships between people who see the world completely differently. It's always fun to see them interact.

For my 5 cents, I think if DC ever did have Donna and Dick 'hook-up' it would become the definition of 'wrong move' by a comic book publisher. Thanks again to Bill for all the awesomeness posted above (I think I pick something new up with each read!), and stay tuned for the final part of this interview Sunday, when we look at the Teen Titans cartoon, Bill's own Titans collection, and what the future holds for both the teen team supreme, and

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